The hardest part of my job isn’t getting athletes fit. The challenge of the coach is to get athletes to believe in themselves to execute that fitness on race day.
For most of us, we are about as good as we make up our minds to be.
“It’s your thinking that decides whether you’re going to succeed or fail.”
Most of our performance, beyond basic fitness, is entirely within our control. Execution of a sound fuel plan is entirely within our control. Adapting to and overcoming obstacles or challenges, again, within our reach. Accepting weather conditions, managing race day anxiety, dealing with other competitors – all things that we can decide to do – with confidence!
“There can be no great courage where there is no confidence or assurance, and half the battle is in the conviction that we can do what we undertake.”
-Orison Swett Marden
How do you actually do these things, with confidence, when pressure is high and thoughts are screaming otherwise? It’s all part of the mental game. Like any game, the mental game can be lost or won. I hear this a lot – I need to improve my mental game. Many athletes have misconceptions about how to improve their mental game. Let’s start with things that do not improve your mental game:
(1) Suffering through hard workouts designed above your current fitness level. Suffering does not make you mentally tough, it usually just makes you tired.
(2) Relentlessly positive thinking. Forcing yourself to change your current thought patterns creates unnecessary “chatter” in your head & charges you up to think that something is wrong with you & must be fixed (which then lowers confidence)
(3) Deciding on race day to be mentally tough. Practice makes perfect. Deciding to be mentally tough on race day is like deciding you’re going to hold 22 mph when you’ve been training at 17. To get there, you gotta go there.
(4) Thinking you have to be the fastest, most “talented” athlete with genetic gifts & high V02 max to master the mental game. Mental toughness (and confidence) is accessible to any athlete willing to practice & it’s worth free speed, no matter what your speed.
How does one therefore improve their mental game?
Confidence. Staying the path. Going there in practice to get there when it matters most – in racing.
Want to be on top of your mental game? Be confident. Funny thing about confidence is that it’s a lifelong process of finding, accepting and being yourself. Often you have to dig a little deeper to figure out why you are not confident. I see this with a lot of athletes – they are highly successful in their “real” life. Yet put them into the sporting field, build the pressure and they crumble when confidence is needed the most. Why? I think it’s the perfect storm of mental pressure and physical fatigue.
Pressure. The irony is that most of us do this for fun, or because we are passionate about it – the fitness, the challenge, the health, etc. There is no “real” pressure other than the pressure we place on ourselves. We place a lot of pressure on ourselves because we are competitive, because we are (mostly) Type-A perfectionists. There is internal pressure from ourselves and mostly what I find is perceived external pressure for outside sources; social media, what others think about us, sponsors, etc. When you let go of the idea of pressure you realize that you are free. When you are free, you can act automatically. Your actions are made with confidence rather than playing it safe through fear of consequences (what you might feel, what others think of you). All of a sudden everything you’ve done in training can be done in racing because there are no forces (pressures) working against you.
“Pressure is nothing more than the shadow of great opportunity.”
Physical fatigue, unlike pressure, is very real. It is what happens when you push against that edge of your endurance, your threshold – wherever you are going in a race. There is no training that prepares you for the feeling in the last 10K of an Ironman marathon. Better yet, the last 400 meters of a 1 mile all out race. What you do in those moments is often much more what you decide to do versus what you are prepared to do. I’ve never run 22 miles in training. I’ve never walked the last 4 miles of a marathon. Make no mistake, how I felt in those last 4 miles was one of the most physically painful experiences of my life. Yes, fatigue is often due to carbohydrate depletion or dehydration. But beyond that, like most things in sport, it’s a mindset. You make choices out there. The only way I was able to make the choice to keep running was from confidence. Fearlessness for going after it, trusting that whatever is coming my way, I can handle it.
“Even the strongest have their moments of fatigue.”
Improving your mental game has little to do with thinking positive. Or turning every negative thought around. The truth is, you cannot change your thoughts. Your thoughts pop into your head for a variety of reasons – some have merit, others are totally random, unrelated to anything real. You cannot make yourself think good things. You can say good things to yourself but you can’t change your thoughts. Often the more you try to tell yourself to think positive, the more you fight yourself and create the opposite reaction of what you are seeking. You charge up your thinking and your ‘self’ starts to think – what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I think positive? All of a sudden something small that you were trying positively think your way out of gets blown up into something big, a source of self failure or fear. You over-react – actually, you react and take action at a time when you should have done nothing.
Let’s say you’re not enjoying a 20 mph headwind. Nothing you “think” will change the wind. And let’s be honest – riding into the wind is not fun! It’s ok to realistically recognize that. The more you try to convince yourself that riding into the wind is fun, the more your smart little self starts to think – why can’t I just think that it’s fun? I’m not ok. I’m weak, I’m failing, if I can’t handle the wind, how am I going to handle the run?!? Instead, let yourself think the wind isn’t fun. Then, keep riding. Don’t try to change that thought or overthink it. At some point you will get off the bike; the time will pass and you will be out of the wind.
“Negativity is a fundamental and necessary part of the human experience. Those who understand the arbitrary and meaningless nature of thought would never try to change or fix their thinking. If you combat wayward thoughts by trying to override them with positive ones, you will only energize and prolong the negativity.”
Along these same lines, many times, success in a race is just staying the path out there.
Staying the path. When you least want to, is when you most need to. Often the difference between the mentally tough and those that give up is not that the mentally tough don’t feel pain, are stronger, are faster, are genetically more gifted – it’s just that they stay in the game at a time when everyone else is giving up. This is especially true in long course racing. We all know the person who DNF’ed at mile 13 of the marathon. Half way there! When you most want to give up is when you need to hang on the hardest – your breakthrough is probably right into the next mile! Give yourself a chance. Have the confidence to get yourself through those low moments – remember, in those moments, if you’re thinking negative thoughts, let them be! Don’t act upon them. Keep moving forward.
“You have to have confidence in your ability, and then be tough enough to follow through.”
Is mental toughness never giving up? There is great risk is never giving up. It means you’re going to go through some very low moments. When you are not confident, there is much fear about these moments. You have to believe that you have the skills to work through them. How do you develop those skills? By letting yourself go there! Put yourself there in training. Most athletes are very intelligent adults. We are very efficient, self-protecting machines. We play it safe. In life and sport! There’s less to lose when you play it safe. You can comfortably coast along without much struggle. But in doing so you also accept a half assed version of yourself. The difference between that person who started their own business, decided to leave a job to travel the world, became a world champion is because they were ready to take a bigger risk. And that’s how to master the mental game. You have to be willing to risk something (pain, failure, maybe even risk yourself) to learn more about yourself.
“If you never struggle with confidence, you obviously are not stretching yourself far enough. You are not pressing to the edge of your abilities. In other words, the only way to never struggle with confidence is to play it safe. Play it known. Play it in a way that you achieve stability, but lose opportunity.”
You can easily do this in training. This doesn’t mean suffering through ridiculously hard workouts that are designed far beyond your fitness level. This means looking for any opportunity in training to improve your mental game – doing your long ride solo versus riding with a group, setting a goal for your bike test, hitting your intervals in the heat no matter what your head says, moving up a lane at masters to challenge yourself. When you have successes or failures in these situations, you learn something about yourself. Most of us resist opportunities to learn something about ourselves because it involves risk of failure and failure to receive approval from those external pressures mentioned above (other people, social media, etc). To get there, you gotta go there, no matter what the “consequence.”
“Total self-confidence is built through positive expectations. You can build positive expectations by knowing that you have the power within to overcome any obstacle that lies ahead. So many people have magnetic attraction to the past. They save momentos, clippings, old letters. There is nothing wrong with this, but if you want to succeed, your mind must focus on where you are going, not on where you have been. Instead of saving momentos, clippings, old letters from the past, it would be more productive to make a scrapbook with pictures of where you want to go and what you want to be in the future.”
How important is the mental game? Like I said, most of us are about as good as we make up our minds to be. The more experienced and “faster” the athlete, the more I see this. There’s very little difference in the fitness of top age groupers. They’re all working hard. They’re all able to swim around x:xx pace, ride at x watts/kg and run around x:xx miles. Maybe a few variations. They’ve usually got the details (sleep, diet, recovery) buttoned down. So what makes one athlete better than the other? It’s usually the space between their two ears. Actually, on race day, finding a way to keep that space as quiet and empty as possible. Allowing themselves to act from confidence, to act automatically, to let their skills and fitness just….flow.
While I can’t promise you that by upping your mental game you’ll raise your threshold by xx watts, you will raise your confidence. How much is that worth?
“With confidence you have won even before you have started.”